22 March, 2015

Morning Prayer: Embarrassed by Mercy

A few years ago I taught at a small Christian school where each day began with a brief devotional time called Morning Prayer.  Over the two weeks leading up to Easter I'm publishing posts derived from devotionals I shared or experiences I had during that year, all having to do with presence and absence, generosity and loss.

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In 2012 I finished a brief stint living in London and visited a friend who lived in east Germany, a stay which I later blogged about here.  I wrote about Kordelia, the woman who visited the Bauhaus with us and then invited us back to her home for dinner. That evening we were overwhelmed by an unending parade of food offered to us -- chips, lemonade, homemade bread, cheese, salad, pizza, dessert, more pizza -- it just kept coming!  


It was a bit embarrassing to be showered with so much when I was a total stranger to them.  With every new offering, I said "thank you."  Over and over: "thank you so much!"  Kordelia finally stopped, looked at me, and said, "It makes me uncomfortable that you thank me so much...But I guess it would probably make you uncomfortable not to thank me, wouldn't it?"  ...Yeeeeeeesssss...
Babette's Feast, 1987

I grew up in Maryland, and while it wasn't quite the South a lot of my good friends were transplanted southerners, and their manners rubbed off on me.  It was drilled into me to say "Yes sir," "Yes ma'am," "Please," "Thank you."  I felt very rude if I didn't say thank you.  It was rote, habit, but it was subtly chased by the fear of some unspecified consequence for not being "good."  Kordelia's words were shocking because of how profoundly she didn't expect or need my thanks.  My thanks did not accomplish anything for her.  It was simply in her nature to give generously out of what she had been given, for the pure pleasure of sharing.  My gratitude wasn't the point.  Her hospitality was a gift to me and an opportunity to flex the muscles of who she was in her core.  But my excessive, dutiful "Thanks" in a way diminished her own experience of giving -- drawing too much attention to the act.  

What is the nature of a gift?  It's not a trade.  When someone gives a gift to you they aren't expecting anything back.  You are free to use it as you choose.  Thinking about that evening at Kordelia's helped me realize that I have a similar difficulty with simply receiving God's grace to me.  It's actually very hard to receive.  I often still feel guilt or embarrassment, as though God will somehow hold it against me if I don't do something to make up for all the trouble He's gone to.  

One of my favorite books is a short story called "Babette's Feast."  It is an amazing picture of lavish generosity to very oblivious recipients.  Late in the story, one character (who is burdened by his own regrets and misgivings about past choices) comes to realize that he has just been treated to the most extravagant meal in meager surroundings with simple people.  It was cooked by a woman who never hinted at the expense and effort it cost her.  Everyone has eaten quietly, receiving what was set before them. It is too late to help in any way with buying or cooking or serving any of it. The man stands up to give a toast and says:

"There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite.  We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude.  Mercy imposes no conditions."

These gifts - food, shelter, friendship, the hospitality of strangers, a home for eternity - are given with no conditions.  We say thanks not out of duty or fear of disdain, but because this truth is too wonderful to not overflow our starving hearts.  We are given daily bread AND so much in addition that is non-essential to existence, because the Giver Himself is infinite; how could an infinitely generous heart stop at only providing essentials?  How could an infinitely generous heart impose conditions on the sun that shines on the evil and the good?  How could we ever hope to adequately thank, if thanks were the terms of the gift?  This is on my mind with the approach of Easter, that day that marks the ultimate extravagant feast which can only be received because it can never be repaid.  I hope to live less out of fear and more with my face turned up, gratefully embarrassed by Mercy.  

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